“Before I speak, I have something important to say.”

–Groucho Marx

 

In a clip from a longer interview with WSJ’s Simon Constable, Dr Nouriel Roubini claims Karl Marx was right about capitalism eventually destroying itself. While not quite yet at the breaking point, Roubini observes, we are headed down the road to disaster as predicted by Marx.

Roubini echoes my view that debt reduction and restructuring is the only way to restore real growth to the US and other economies. Breaking up a few zombie banks and cartels probably would not bother him either. But let’s focus on Roubini’s somewhat provocative comment that Marx correctly predicted the present global debt bust and economic deflation.

When I hear people talking about Marxism in reverent tones it makes me nauseous. Marx was not right at all about class being the key determinant of human action. Yet despite America’s pretensions to being a free market, democratic society, the Marxian world view won the battle for ideas in the 20th Century. The New Deal and Great Society efforts to increase the scope of government in America all stem from the socialist ideas of FDR and his political heirs in both parties.

So much of our economic discourse in America today is entirely Marxist in nature — a reference to both Karl and Groucho Marx, as noted above. The legacy of FDR and the two world wars was to kill the American republic and put in its place a cheap imitation of France with platonic regulators pretending to moderate the bad old ways of greedy private business.

The Cold War in particular left Americans more Marxist in their economic thinking than we care to admit. We discarded the focus on individual liberty and the rule of law espoused by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as the drivers of economic activity in a free, democratic society. Instead we have modern day robber barons, faceless corporate managers openly allied with corrupt politicians in Washington and guarded by phalanxes of vicious lawyers.

The fact of our intellectual reliance upon the work of Karl Marx to benchmark our economic success show humans to be creatures of habit, not reason. Marx embarked from a position of dialectical mysticism borrowed from Hegel and then attacked the classical economists, the enlightenment thinkers such as John Staurt Mill and Adam Smith who elevated the role of the individual. Those who laud Marx disparage all things American.

Ludwig von Mises writes in his book Human Action, that Marx stigmatized the economists as “the sycophants of the bourgeoisie.” He notes that Marx was “the son of a well-to-do lawyer,” and Engles, “a wealthy textile manufacturer, never doubted that they themselves were above the law and, notwithstanding their bourgeois background, were endowed with the power to discover absolute truth. It is the task of history to describe the historical conditions which made such a crude doctrine popular.”

Not only was Marxism crude, but it missed most of the major developments of the 20th Century. Revolution occurred not in bourgeois Germany but in brutal, backward Czarist Russia. More important, the class-centric view of Marxism proved incorrect in a world of greater openness, mobility and individual choice. The act of conscious choice driven not by greed, but the desire for betterment; of human action as von Mises coined the term, rejects Marxist class determinism.

But with the world facing global recession or worse, and the children of the New Dealers demanding blood and higher taxes from the greedy capitalists, the question put to Roubini still comes: has the growth possibility of the “capitalist” world, as we inaccurately label the socialist western economies, reached a logical limit as predicted by Marx? I do not believe so.

Nations which adopted Marxist or other types of authoritarian systems have performed abysmally, while nations that focused on individual freedom and openness thrive. The US and EU have lessened their prospects through over-reliance on government and public debt. The answer in both cases is debt reduction and restructuring, and shrinking the size of the public sector.

Since the end of WWI, the nations of the global economy have faced a difficult paradox: the greater openness of trade and finance have created serious economic imbalances, shortfalls in employment and growth in public debt. John Maynard Keynes was no free trader, as we have discussed previously in this blog, precisely because he feared the destabilizing influence of large trade and financial flows.

The fact that advances in technology cause unemployment in older industries has nothing to do with Marxism or any of the political narratives of the 19th or 20th Centuries. Nor does the fact of global over-capacity confirm the Marxist dialectic as to the inevitability of world socialist revolution. What these ills do point out is that the world needs to revisit not tired Marxism, but the Keynesian concept of a competitive currency system and thereby better govern global flows of capital and commerce.

All nations, regardless of supposed economic creed, now face a more basic series of choices: how to balance employment and economic stability with economic openness and the relentless pressure of competition and new technology. The future is not about class warfare as Marx predicted, but is about maximizing the potential and opportunities for every individual.